Diversity at work

What is diversity management, where does it come from and what are the desirable scenarios of its evolution within the HR departments


Diversity management is a concept that originated in North America, introduced by the 1963 Equal Pay Act (EPA), aimed at eliminating inequality in pay between genders (goal that has still not been fully achieved today). The concept of diversity management was taken up and disseminated by researchers, who successfully recontextualized it by applying it to business, and has ended up being used in company management as prerogative of the Human Resource sector entrusted to discretion and to company policies.

After all, the EPA and subsequent US regulations, up to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (just as our Law 120\2011 on “pink quotas” and previous Law 68\99 on the disabled), represent an example of affirmative action (AA), consisting in the legal prescription of employment quotas to avoid possible discrimination between genders and against minorities in general. Over time, it has become evident that these actions were not well received: without losing sight of the context within which the concept and practice of diversity management were created and initially developed, in the US the reactions to AA policies and employment equity have essentially been negative on both sides, as they are viewed by traditionally advantaged groups as practices that abandon the principle of merit in favour of mere calculations and numerical quotas, and by the alleged beneficiaries as the reason for feeling irremediably labelled as incompetent or less qualified, because they were hired as a result of to AA. Although research has shown that this is not directly responsible for inflation of credentials or levelling down of performance, companies started to use diversity HR management (DHRM) practices to avoid the risk of stigmatization. So DHRM has been used more and more together with affirmative action as corporate choice to hire and advance, within the company, employees from very different geographical and, above all, cultural backgrounds (different through being man-woman, able-differently able, hetero-homosexual), to ward off the risk of discrimination of minorities.

As organizations that intend to become or remain relevant on an international level cannot allow themselves to ignore the impact that a multi-faceted variegated workforce has on the possibility of successfully approaching new markets, as well as on problem-solving abilities and innovation, DHRM has primarily become a requirement of multinational companies, going beyond hiring people from different demographic backgrounds to include everything a company does to genuinely focus on combining human resources from different backgrounds and with different outlooks in a single workforce, to create a collaborative atmosphere and a sense of community and identity in diversity.

Dedicated programmes, the creation of informal networks and, above all, managerial behaviour can create an atmosphere of this kind. For example, IBM has made DHRM an essential strategy for its business, building “diverse teams” that know local markets in their various aspects and promoting sharing initiatives at different levels. But it is the hiring and facilitation policies in the case of potentially weaker subjects that are the practices that promote diversity. The multinational television broadcasting company FOX is at the forefront also in Italy for gender equality, with the presence of 49% of women, of which 61% managers, 40% executives, and 37% mothers: goal achieved also through a policy of facilitations, above all the option for mothers to work part time until their child is two years of age.

Without diversity management, managers and office workers might act or feel threatened as a result of deep-seated and at times unconscious prejudices, rather than on the basis of objective assessments: ultimately, this is the added value of diversity policies and practices, which however have still not been implemented consistently with the same importance they are given in theory and, in practice, have rarely passed beyond the confines of multinational corporations.

And yet small and medium-sized businesses, as well as public institutions, would benefit from the promotion of a culture of this kind, because diversity management means the promotion of new and diverse ideas that employees bring to the company, which can translate into innovative contributions for business: I am thinking of Italian universities, often unable or “unwilling” to facilitate the creation of internal spaces for comparison that produce tangible innovation, and above all of better integration of diversity between senior and junior employees, which however does not seem to be among those concepts institutionally included in DHRM. If it is considered as a more effective alternative to AA, this is due to the fact that by involving, amalgamating and valorizing different people and roles, and, consequently, by managing diversity rather than simply predicting or establishing its existence, this capitalizes its benefits. Moreover, it has been shown how DHRM reduces turnover and absenteeism, increases sales, improves decision-making processes and, last but not least, attracts the best potential employees available on the market: the presence of structural attention to diversity has proved to be a factor in choosing the companies/businesses to which the most motivated candidates submit their applications.


Daniela Sideri

Daniela Sideri Laureata in Scienze Politiche a Roma, dottorato in Studi Culturali a Siena completato negli Stati Uniti presso la CUNY, già visiting scholar a Cambridge è ora assegnista di ricerca in sociologia presso l'Università G. D'Annunzio